Decriminalizing drugs is a hot topic these days, with the blue touch-paper having been lit last month by Richard Branson’s leaking of a UN report that criticized the current criminalization policy adopted by most governments. Though the document was eventually blocked before it could be officially released, its sentiments are being adopted by a number of countries, with Ireland the latest to propose the legalization of supervised heroin use.
If voted in by parliament, it is hoped that the measures could lead to a reduction in overdose deaths and cut the spread of infections through the sharing of contaminated needles. At the same time, however, opponents of the idea fear that it could lead to an increase in drug use. Yet Ireland would not be the first country to implement such a policy, which means it’s now possible to debate the issue using evidence obtained from previous examples.
The most striking case is that of Portugal, where in 1999 around 1% of the population was addicted to heroin, while the spread of viruses such as HIV and hepatitis B and C was on the increase. In what was seen as a drastic move by many at the time, the Portuguese government decided to decriminalize the possession of all drugs in 2001, allowing users to seek treatment instead of being prosecuted. On the whole, the results have been extremely positive. For instance, toxicology reports indicate that the number of deaths attributed directly to drugs decreased from around 80 in 2001 to 16 in 2012. Over the same period, the number of drug users diagnosed with HIV per year fell from 1,016 to 56.
When it comes to overall drug use, the picture is a little murkier, with some pointing to the fact that lifetime drug use – meaning the number of people who have used drugs at any point in their life – has in fact increased from 8% to 10% during the same timeframe. However, the number of people using drugs per year has decreased, as has drug use among 15- to 24-year-olds – the group most at risk of initiating narcotic use.
While other countries may not have gone quite as far as Portugal in their harm reduction policies, several have introduced safe injection rooms for heroin users. Among them is Spain, where the number of overdose deaths decreased from 1,833 in 1991 to 773 in 2008, while the percentage of new HIV infections among clients of these facilities fell from 19.9 percent in 2004 to 8.2 percent in 2008.
On top of all this, a report by the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction found no evidence that decriminalizing drugs leads to increased use, or that the introduction of sterner punishment produces a decrease. In light of this and other data, the leaked report from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime argued that the criminalization of drugs in fact produced “negative consequences for safety, security and human rights.”
However, while much of the evidence suggests that decriminalization can have positive effects, it is important to note that drug-related problems are also influenced by a wide range of other factors. For instance, a study by Alex Stevens of the University of Kent’s School of Social Policy, Sociology and Social Research found that the rate of drug injection among a certain population is greatly impacted by the level of social welfare provided by that country’s government.